The Creepy playing second base is a hell of a fielder, but his arm's for shit, so they can forget about the double-play. My sister Jenna swings a doughnutted bat in the on-deck circle, chewing strawberry gum we found in the drawer of a wrecked house, her Mets cap turned around backwards, her yellow hair flowing in the constant breeze. Seeing her like this makes me happy. She shouts at the Ken up at bat, "You'd better hit the goddamned ball, loser!" Mom wouldn't ever let that language fly. Jenna's only ten. But I let it slide. Lately, I let everything slide.
The Creepies' pitcher looks like a seven-foot tall furless cat with giant yellow eyes that glow no matter what angle you look at them, and rows and rows of toothpick teeth longer than my fingers. But her arm's the real killer. She's struck out four batters already, and it's only the third inning. (These Creepies learn fast.) Bottom of the third inning, actually, and the last. Three innings was all we could coax from these creatures who seem to be more interested in the strange stars spinning wildly above the field than the game. Its Jenna, me, the Kens and Barbies vs. the Creepies, and we're down, 1-0.
The Ken at bat just stands there as the pitch whizzes by. "Strike three!" calls the ump, a three-foot scaly fish with bat-like wings. His voice is like frogs dying. Two outs. Jenna throws her bat to the ground. Its clank echoes from the home-run walls. "You idiot! You stupid jerk! You goddamned jerk! Why couldn't you hit the ball?"
I cautiously approach my sister. Last week, she swung at me, got me right in the balls. But I've forgiven her. I forgive everything now. "Hey, hey. It's all right. We still have a chance," I say. My hand falls on her shoulder, but she shoves it away.
"No! He should have hit the ball, Russell! Three pitches right down the middle and he just stood there! He's so stupid!"
The Kens and Barbies are more than stupid, they're empty. Literally. They look like ordinary people, except at certain angles you can see right through them, and they glow like streetlights in fog. And they also do whatever you ask them, because there's nothing much left inside to tell them otherwise. (It was easy herding a bunch of them to play this game.) I turn her around, lean in to face her. "You're up, Jenna. You can do this."
"She's too fast. I'll strike out."
"I've seen you hit the ball. You're amazing. Show them what we are."
"That was before. I'm nothing now." She falls to her knees, runs her hand through the dirt.
A green monster like a seven-legged Incredible Hulk runs across the field and leaps over the home-run fence into the starry abyss. A moment later, a huge flying hairless ferret-thing arcs over the field, snatches up the monster and flaps away into the stars. The monster screams, trailing a rain of golden blood. Jenna doesn't look up.
I squat down and lift her chin. Her eyes are as red as stoplights. "You're not nothing, Jenna. You're everything to me."
She frowns, points a shaking finger up. "He says I'm nothing. He says we're all nothing, doesn't he?"
I look up at a sky filled with too-bright stars, even though the sun is up and shining, at the giant pieces of earth that drift lazily overhead, entire towns and cities uprooted and tossed into space, never to fall back down. What can I say to comfort her?
"It's your turn, Jenna. You have to play."
Ten weeks earlier, the afternoon of my first day of ninth grade, I lined up my bike behind a dozen other kids, waiting my turn to trick out on the Track. That was our name for the curvy, jump-laden BMX bike course some kids had built years back with shovels and dirt in the wooded preserve. Each year, some parent inevitably got wind of it, had the town bulldoze it flat. And each year, some industrious kids rebuilt it, with improvements on the original design. Far from the eyes of parents or cops, the Track had become a sacred place, where kids could trick out without helmets or pads, smoke cigarettes, and make out behind the trees.
Everyone who was anyone was here, decked out in their new threads. It seemed as if every kid had remade himself for the new year. I felt like anything was possible, that I too could make myself into whatever I wanted.
My friend Vinny (new Adidas pants and sneakers, Lakers cap) leaned in close on his bike and excitedly showed me a picture of what was supposed to be Pamela Huston's cleavage. With careful pinches, Vinny vigorously zoomed in and out on the screen of his cell phone, as if there were some cosmic secret hidden in the pixels. All I saw was a blotch of color.
"Dude," he said, "she sits right next to me. I am so going to love math this year."
To show him up, I whipped out my new Droid. Four calls from Mom, and two messages, but I ignored them and waited impatiently as my web page trickled in. Last night, I'd created six new levels for the game Nimbus, an open-sourced first-person shooter that had become more popular than Jesus over the past few months. "Check out this crazy maze I built. No one's getting out of this death trap."
"Dude, you're such a geek!" Vinny said. "I'm showing you tits and you're showing me your game levels?"
I felt disappointed. I'd spent hours building worlds in Nimbus, and Vinny was usually excited to see them. I slipped my phone back in my pocket.
Vinny twisted his head with his hands, looked like he was trying to tear it from his skull. I heard a crack. When some people were anxious, they cracked their knuckles. Vinny cracked his neck. "So why are we here, again?"
I spotted Maeve and Elsa walking toward us, all dolled up in their brightly colored, knee-length jackets, trying to avoid getting dirt on the new fabric. I gestured at them with my chin. "Maeve's in my world studies class," I said. Just saying her name made my heart skip a beat. "I told her I bike, and she got all excited."
My phone buzzed. My mom, again. I sent her to voicemail.
"Oh, so that's why you dragged me here with these douchebags." Vinny whispered. "Maeve is a hottie. I'd totally like to—"
"Shut up!" I said. "Here they come. Don't be a dick. Girls don't like that."
"What? Girls don't like my dick?" He smiled wickedly at me.
I'd had a crush on Maeve since spring of last year, when we shared a square dance circle in gym class. Her hands had been so warm. But back then she'd been with Christopher Black, a kid who liked to wear plaid and who probably should have started shaving in seventh grade but had let his peach fuzz grow until it resembled a patch of blond mold. Rumor had it that they'd broken up over the summer, and since then I tried to learn everything I could about her.
"Hi, Vin. Hi, Russ," Maeve said, smiling. Her cheeks were pink with cold, her black bob of hair half-hidden by a gray knitted cap with tassels. Elsa ran a finger slowly around her hoop earrings. Both girls wore Ray Ban glasses (prescription), which had, for some reason become the Most-Necessary-Thing™ over the summer and now all the girls whose moms could afford to buy them sported a pair. Maeve's cherry red ones made her look like a punked-out NASA engineer. "Are you up soon?" she said.
In my best attempt at laid-back cool I said, "Yeah, after Mi--ke." But my voice cracked like I'd just hit puberty.
"Frog in your thr—oat?" Elsa said, mocking me. The girls giggled. My face grew hot, and I fumbled to save myself.
"What my castrato friend here is trying to say," Vinny said, "is, wait till you see his backside. Backside air, that is."
I shook my head, but the girls laughed, and all was well again. Maeve stared at me. She looked expectant, her irises the color of fall grasses, a swirl of green and brown, and pupils dark pits that threatened to suck me in forever.
She let slip a shy, wonderful little smile at me. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just cheered as Eric Kellerman landed a jump. I sucked at flirting, and my hacking skills weren't going to get me girls any time soon. But I kicked ass at BMX. I had a growing reputation in the school as "That A-track kid who bikes." I preferred that to the previous year's moniker of "That nerd who hangs out with Vinny." And I thought, if I tricked out a bit in front of Maeve, got some sick air, then maybe she'd be impressed, and, if the afternoon went really well, we'd go behind the trees and...
My heart hammered. This was going to be a good year.
"I heard you were good," Elsa said. She whipped out a pack of Marlboro Lights from her pocket and lit the last one, the one turned around for good luck.
Maeve smiled and swayed restlessly, the tassels of her hat swinging back and forth against her head like a Tibetan drum. "Can you do a full twirl?" she said.
"You mean a three-sixty?" I blushed. "Sure."
"Awesome," she said. "I love that."
I couldn't believe she was paying this much attention to me, that both girls were. I had shed my nerdiness like I'd shed junior high. I couldn't stop smiling.
Vinny poked me in the arm and said, "Dude, is that who I think it is?"
I turned to see a frazzled woman, dressed in green scrubs, walking between the kids and their bikes. Her presence here was impossible, and for a moment it didn't register. Then I remembered the phone calls.
"Russell? Is Russell Broward here?" Everyone turned to look at her, then me.
"Oh, god!" I whispered. I turned my back, pretending not to hear, hoping she'd vanish.
"Russ-ell?" She sounded like she was calling for a lost dog. She spotted me, stormed right across the Track, and Eric Kellerman nearly clobbered her as he came around the turn.
"Is that your mom?" Maeve said. She squinted at me.
"My mom? Oh, uh...yeah."
"You told her about the Track?"
Maeve pushed her glasses up her nose as if taking me in. I don't think she liked what she saw. I couldn't see her irises anymore, only the dull gray rectangles of reflected sky.
My mom strode up to us and put her hands on her hips. She took a long look at Elsa, who hid her cigarette behind her back, and turned to me. "Why didn't you answer my calls? I thought I told you to come home after school!"
"What are you doing here?" I snapped.
Her hair was a mangled mess and her lipstick had missed her lips, fallen on her cheek. Ever since dad had died two years back she'd always had the appearance of going somewhere and never arriving. "They called me to cover a shift and I need you to babysit your sister."
"Yes, now, Russell. And where's your helmet?" She looked around. "All you kids should be wearing helmets." She stared at Elsa, who had been trying not to giggle. "Does your mother know you smoke? You know teenage smoking increases your risk of breast cancer seventy percent?"
Oh, god. This wasn't happening.
Elsa said, "My mom buys me all my packs." Maeve laughed, but quickly silenced herself when my mother glared at her.
"Come on, Russell!"
Humiliated, I muttered goodbye to them.
"Later, man," Vinny said mournfully. Elsa seemed annoyed, and Maeve frowned. I heard Elsa mock, "'Teenage smoking increases your risk of breast cancer seventy percent!'" Someone shouted, "Mommy says Russell can't come out and play!" and a bunch of kids laughed.
I hung my head as I followed my mom through the trees and out onto the road, where her Honda CRV idled. Jenna sat in the back seat, playing Derek Jeter's World of Baseball on her pink pocket console as my mom opened the hatchback. I threw my bike in, got in the passenger seat, slammed the door.
"I don't like your attitude, Russell!"
I was on the verge of tears. "You couldn't call a stupid babysitter?"
"I'm sorry, Russell, but there was no one else."
The tires screeched as we pulled away. I looked into the back seat, Jenna in her pink jacket playing her pink hand-held game. She was humming happily to herself. I wanted to scream.
"I left money on the table. You can order a pizza. I want you in bed by eleven, your sister by nine. And no playing video games till your homework's done."
Jenna said, "Let's play baseball when we get home! Mom bought me a new mitt."
"I'm not playing with you, loser!"
"Hey! Don't you dare talk to your sister that way!" Mom said. "You'll play with her, or no video games for a month."
I crossed my arms, sulked, and Jenna returned her attention to her pocket game. "You're not like him," she said.
"Dad would always play with me when I asked."
Mom sighed deeply as she raced down Ocean Avenue towards home, speeding through a yellow light. Just ten minutes ago, my high school future had held so much promise. Now everyone would be talking about Russell Broward, the kid whose mom picks him up from the Track. I'd be a dork in their eyes forever.
"I hate you," I whispered.
"What did you say?"
We zoomed past three kids popping wheelies, laughing as they raced toward the preserve. "I so hate you both."
Jenna's tears have run out, which is good, because the white-skinned Creepy in left field has begun to dig up the grasses and vomit jewels into the holes. The others are fidgeting too. This game won't last much longer. Jenna stands, wipes her cheeks, and with a jab to the ground frees the bat of its doughnut. I straighten her hat, give her my best smile, and pat her backside as she steps up to the plate.
The catcher is some sort of shapeless ball of worms which reminds me of the squirming things I once found in our cat Lucifer's shit, but this Creepy is exceptionally good at catching the ball and returning it to the yellow-eyed pitcher on cue. It says to Jenna, "Your not-rot is repulsive to us," which I assume is some sort of insult intended to upset her hitting ability.
(Yeah, these Creepies learn fast.)
Jenna steps into the batter's box, and the many-toothed cat tosses three pitches, all balls the umpire declares. Jenna takes them all with the steadiness of a mountain.
The next pitch. Jenna swings. For a ten year old she's got quite the upper body strength. The ball makes a metallic ping as it connects with the bat, flies over my head to crash into the windshield of a car.
"Foul ball," the umpire declares, and distantly, something not quite human screams.
"C'mon Jenna! You can hit the ball!" I cheer. "No pitcher! No pitcher!"
The pitcher's eyes flicker like moonlit gold.
She takes the pitch. It's clearly high and outside, but the umpire calls "Strike two!"
"What!" I storm towards him, cursing. "That was totally high and away!"
"Step away from me," the fish-creature says. "Or I will devour your immortal self." He spreads his bat-like wings, and on his scaly hide I see dozens of tiny faces crying out in pain. I leap back, horrified.
"Don't worry, Russell, I've got this," Jenna says, and her defiance centers me. "These Creepies got nothing on me."
"Who you calling creepy?" the worm-creature says.
I step back to my place beside the dugout as the pitcher lofts the next pitch. I hold my breath as Jenna swings...and connects! A line drive flies over the second baseman's head to land in right field. Jenna screams with joy and sprints to first. A Creepy made of a thousand hands with eyeballs in their palms fields the ball. It catapults it to the shortstop covering second by rolling end over end. I tell Jenna to hold up at first.
She's the tying run. We may win this game after all.
"I hit it! I did it!" Jenna screams, over and over. She falls to the ground, hysterically laughing, or crying. I can't tell which.
Three weeks after that awful first day of school, the leaves had fallen, and so had my hopes of being anything other than what I was last year, that nerd who hung out with Vinny. I went to the Track a few times, but Maeve was never there, and when I passed her in the hall, she just nodded politely and kept on walking. Whenever I brought up the subject with Vinny, he just cracked his neck and said, "Tragic."
As Mr. Verini droned on about the Peloponnesian War, I stared out the window at the approaching black clouds. I hoped for a violent thunderstorm, something to break my boredom. I watched Maeve's left hand scrawl out neatly handwritten notes and wondered how it was possible to sit so close to her and yet be so far away. Last week I'd heard she started dating Eric Kellerman, and I couldn't help but wonder if I'd stayed at the Track that first day of school it would be me.
I decided that when I got home, I'd trash the new Nimbus game levels I'd created, even if they gave Vinny a hard-on. They bored me, and I had ideas for new ones, better ones, with hundred-story skyscrapers and bridges that spanned chasms of fire. I started to sketch them out in my notebook, when the room shook with thunder.
The lights flickered. Diana Golina yelped, and the class laughed. "Settle down," Mr. Verini said. He resumed his lesson. He would not be thwarted by mere weather. But the next tremor knocked the corkboard from the wall and a look of worry crossed his face. I glanced at Maeve, whose mouth was open as if to speak.
Then it happened.
A tremendous groan and screech, like a battleship being torn in two. The lights sparked and went out. Everyone screamed. In the twilight I saw a wall come rushing towards me. I panicked, covered my head.
I must have passed out, because when I opened my eyes, everything was quiet. My legs were covered with broken cinderblocks, but somehow my head had ended up under a desk. My legs were cut and bleeding, but I managed to free myself from the rubble. I stood on a heap of fallen stone, shivered in the strangely warm air, and looked around me.
The school was destroyed. Crooked rebar poked from steaming piles of shattered stone. Small fires burned. Trapped kids cried, their voices muffled by tons of concrete. The sky shined with an endless spray of stars, a sky like you'd see in the deepest, darkest woods. But that didn't make sense because the sun was up and glowing, bright as noon, giving everything long, strange shadows that shook like rattlesnake tails. And there were mountains in the air. No — not mountains. It seemed as if whole towns had been ripped from the earth and flung into the sky. I blinked, shivered, didn't understand what I was seeing, when I heard cries beneath me.
Under a pile of broken cinder blocks was a hand, a pen still wrapped in its fingers. I tossed away stones, revealing a shoulder, a neck...a head.
Her cherry-red Ray Bans had snapped in two. Her eyes were open, unblinking, pushed from their sockets. I turned away, threw up.
I heard more cries, heaved more stones, but I quickly realized that I couldn't do this alone. I listened, but heard no sirens, no evidence of help arriving. I walked in a daze around the school, trying to convince myself this was just a bad dream, when I saw a figure at the edge of the school property. He twisted his neck, cracking it. I ran to him, screaming.
"Vinny, Vinny! Oh-my-god, what happened? An earthquake? God, Maeve's dead. She's dead, Vinny! What's wrong with the sky?" I spoke so quickly I didn't realize I was crying. He stared calmly at me, waited for me to finish. And that's when I realized his skin had a pale glow, that through his expressionless face I could see the crumbled houses on the other side of the street. He twisted his neck, released. I didn't hear a crack.
"Vinny?" He twisted his neck again. And again. And again. "Vinny! What's happening?"
All around me, see-through kids and teachers climbed out of the smoking rubble. They seemed confused, lost. I poked and prodded, shook and slapped, but none woke from their mindless trance. "Listen to me, goddamnit!" And as if choreographed, all heads turned in my direction together. Terrified, I ran.
Five blocks away, on a street which had buckled up as if the earth had been unzipped, I ran out of breath, and I remembered. "Oh, god! Jenna! Mom!"
I ran past dozens of translucent people on my way to Birch Lane Elementary, gave them a wide berth, which was just as well, because they didn't seem interested in me or for that matter anything at all. Houses had collapsed, and mindless people milled about upturned yards, standing, staring. I tried to ignore the sky, but was mesmerized by a billion overbright stars and an asteroid belt made of stones etched with the circuit board landscape of cities, leaking water from broken sewers in long, sparkling tails.
I found her, sitting on the curb in front of the school, her Hello Kitty knapsack on her back, her eyes wide and vacant. I gasped.
"Jenna! Jenna! Are you all right?"
She didn't move. "Mom was supposed to pick me up from school today." A line of blood trickled from her left ear. I was so happy when I realized I couldn't see through her, that she was real flesh and bone.
"C'mon," I said, taking her hand. "I'm taking you home."
I led her down a buckled street. Three houses attached to a clump of dirt tumbled overhead. In one of their backyards, a dangling swing spun around three hundred and sixty degrees, like a clock's hand, as the houses rolled in the air. "That blue one's Chrissie's house," Jenna said. A row of tall spruces scraped their tops along the street, leaving a trail of pine needles. "She has a lot of American Girl dolls. But I have more Barbies." The houses drifted away.
We reached a break in the road, a cliff where the earth just fell away. I held Jenna's hand as we peered over the edge. Below the pavement was a layer of red clay, veined with the severed roots of trees. Below that lay an assortment of broken sewers and torn electrical cables, spilling foul liquid, popping and sparking. Farther down, a thick layer of bedrock. And a few hundred feet after that, the layers ended. Beyond were stars a million light years away, nebulae that crossed the sky like smeared lipstick, all within an infinite sea of black. Then I knew. We weren't on Earth anymore. We were floating on a clump too.
"But this is the way home, Russell!" Jenna said, looking up at me. "How do we get home?"
A Ken is up after Jenna. Why I chose this particular batting order baffles me now. A home run from me could win the game, but the soul-eating umpire won't let me change the order. After seeing the tortured faces in its hide I decide it's best not to argue.
The Ken looks like he was about thirty-five when the event happened, and judging by his suit and name tag ("Arthur") possibly worked in a bank or a hotel. I tell him to step up to the plate, do his best to hit the ball, and if his empty eyes comprehend anything at all, they don't show it. But, like all the Kens and Barbies, he does what he's told.
He lifts the bat over his left shoulder. A lefty. And judging by his stance I figure he might once have played this game when he still had a soul. I'm not sure how much of the person is left behind, or if the Kens and Barbies are more like tires rolling down a hill, unable to alter their course once set in motion until something smacks into them from the outside.
I see the ball through the Ken's translucent body. Three perfect pitches. All strikes. Jenna curses, stomps up and down on first base. "You idiot! You asshole!" The Ken — I don't want to call him "Arthur" because that would imply he was more than just a rolling tire — hasn't moved since he lifted the bat over his shoulder. The umpire tells him again that he's out, asks him to step away from the plate, but the Ken remains.
I approach. The Ken's body glows like headlights in rain. "You're out, buddy," I say. His eyes are glassy, distant. "Go sit in the dugout."
The bat falls to his side, and he turns, walks to his seat. His expression never changes. There's a wedding ring on his left hand, and I wonder if his wife's still alive, or if she's wandering the clumps in a body without a soul.
I realize with a pang of fear that I'm up next. There are two outs, and I'm the winning run. If I strike out, we lose. Jenna looks at me, expectant, as the sky begins to rain little phosphorescent puffs of light that seem to fall right through the ground. They fill the sky, brighter than the stars.
"Batter up!" the umpire says.
Rain or shine, it seems.
My cell phone had no signal. And the landlines we found didn't work either. "We're taking the long way home," I told Jenna as we looped around town. But home, as far as I could tell, had been torn away.
Empty people waited on broken sidewalks, sat in their dented cars, stared out at their upturned yards. "Why do they just stand there?" Jenna said.
"I don't think they have anywhere else to go."
"Are they ghosts?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think Mom's a ghost?"
I took her hand. "No. I think Mom's very worried about us."
"I don't like how they just stare. What are you staring at?" She screamed, "Go away! Go away!" And as if under her thrall, the see-through people ran from sidewalks, fled their cars, abandoned their once well-manicured lawns. In a minute, all of them had vanished.
Jenna's mouth fell open. "They listened to me."
"C'mon," I said, trembling. "We need to go."
We turned the corner and she screamed. A bat-eared elephant rummaged through the public library's dumpster. It pulled out a ratty book with its human-like hands and said, "What a stupendous waste!"
We fled down another street.
On a road shadowed by towering sycamores, a seven-foot-tall walking-stick insect rushed toward us. I hunched down and covered Jenna in my arms. The insect paused above us and from its tiny mantis-like head said, "Please, I'm a vegetarian," and ran up a large tree.
When we rose again, the streets were filled with strange creatures. Apes with yellow fur hopped from broken rooftop to rooftop, singing jazz. A huge hairy spider feasted on the rubber of downed power lines. A clear ball with a single lidless eye floating inside it bounced past us. But like the mindless people, these strange beasts weren't interested in us.
"What are they?" Jenna said.
"I don't know."
"Are they monsters?"
"Are you?" someone grumbled behind us.
We spun to see a hunched, hairless man as thin as a concentration camp survivor, skin the blasted color of the moon. His smile revealed long canines. A ghoul. "They're same as you," it said in a voice like gravel being crushed. "The lost."
Timidly, I asked, "Lost from what?"
"Do you really need me to answer that?"
When I didn't respond, he looked us up and down and sighed. "Yours wasn't the first world created. And it won't be the last." He bit his long, dirty fingernails. "He didn't like it anymore, so he destroyed it. Like he did to mine. Like he did to all of ours."
"You know." With a bony finger he pointed up. "Him." He coughed and stumbled away like a drunk.
I shook my head. I'd had enough. "Come on, Jenna."
"Where are we going?"
"To a safe place."
The wooded preserve looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. Downed trees crisscrossed the path, making it hard going, but we made it to the Track. A huge tree had fallen across the course and had crushed the ramps. A see-through Eric Kellerman sat on his bike on the other side, moving the pedals back and forth, back and forth. I wondered if he had biked here all the way from school.
I fell back against a tree. I just needed time to think, to make sense of what was happening. But Jenna screamed, "Look!" She ran past Eric.
Jenna! Stop!" I chased after her.
A hundred feet out, the woods abruptly fell away to reveal a gulf of stars. Floating nearby on a clump of land was a house. Our house.
"Mommy!" she cried. "Mommmmmmy!"
I picked Jenna up, afraid she might try to jump over the edge.
"Let me go! Mommy's there! I want Mommy!"
For a moment I entertained the thought of using Eric's bike, building a ramp, flying out into the stars with Jenna on my back. But the house was too far out. There was no way I could reach it. In a game like Nimbus, I'd construct a bridge, or give myself wings, or leap out into the unknown. But even if we could reach it, what would be the point? I squeezed her as I saw something move in my bedroom window.
I turned Jenna's face away. "Mom's at the hospital. She had an extra shift today. She's safe there, with all the doctors."
"But she was supposed to pick me up from school."
"No, that's why I picked you up. She told me to come get you. And now I'm here."
"So Mommy's okay?"
The figure in the house had long, untamed hair. She folded one of my shirts, put it down on my bed, picked it up, folded the same shirt again. And again. And again.
My voice cracked as I said, "Yes, Jenna, Mommy's fine."
I'm up at the plate and I'm shivering. Just as quickly as it began, the phosphorescent rain has stopped, though the field is still pimpled with glowing spots. Jenna leans off of first and her eyes are as wide as moons. It's up to me to win this game, and she knows it. I can't let her down. I don't know what will happen to her if we lose.
The first pitch comes in. It looks high, so I don't swing, but at the last instant it dips.
Damn! I can't tell for sure but I think the yellow-eyed pitcher is laughing.
"Hold up!" the umpire says as a figure runs across the outfield. It's a man, not a Ken. It's a real, solid, flesh and bone human being. He screams, "It's all gone! All lost! There's nothing left! Oh god, oh god, oh god!" He runs for the cliff's edge that cuts across right field, where the world drops away forever.
"Stop!" I scream. "Wait!" I just want to talk to him, to speak to someone besides my sister, to find out who he is and where he's from and what he did before. But he has a soul, and therefore his will is his own. He leaps over the edge. For a few seconds, he keeps moving outward, his legs kicking like Wile E. Coyote gone off a cliff. But then some invisible current yanks him diagonally away. That's the third jumper we've seen this week.
Jenna turns back to me. She's shaking. I wish she hadn't watched.
I tap homeplate with my bat, lift it over my shoulder. "No pitcher!" I say.
After a pause, Jenna says, "No pitcher!"
"Oh and one," the umpire declares. "Two outs."
We raided kitchens for food, slept in dank basements and walk-in closets. We once saw a gang of still-living men and women in suits and dresses murder a boy because he would not give them his last beef jerky. But after a few weeks, it seemed as if we were the only real human beings left. All that remained of the others were see-through husks.
"We won't make it to the hospital," Jenna said.
"No," I said. "It's gone." I was too tired to lie to her. "C'mon, get your stuff. We need to find some food."
"I don't want to," she said. "I'm not hungry anymore."
Neither was I. The strange thing was, we hadn't eaten for three days and neither of us had grown any weaker, though day and night had stopped having meaning. Our clump of earth tumbled in and out of shadow randomly.
"How come we're still alive?" she said.
I shook my head. "I don't know."
"Do you want to play Derek Jeter's World of Baseball against me?" She held her pink pocket game out to me. The batteries had died weeks ago, but she pretended they hadn't.
"No, Jenna. Not now."
I looked out the window. A dead soul in a nightgown had dug hundreds of holes in the yard with her hands as if planting flowers. But there were no flowers. All the plants, confused by the strange days, had wilted and died. The woman paused for a moment, then continued digging.
"Stop digging!" I screamed. And the woman obeyed. Her hands fell into her lap, and she sat there, dirtied, on the dead lawn. Probably would sit there until the end of time.
"You're a bad person," Jenna said. "You don't deserve to live, so I'll crush your house!" She stared at her blank game screen, making exploding sounds. "And you did poorly on your test, so I'll kill all your friends."
Disturbed, I said, "That doesn't sound like baseball."
"No, it's 'Smash World.'" She didn't look up from the blank screen. "One player only."
"Hit it out of the park, Russ!" Jenna shouts as I lift the bat, readying for the next pitch. But the umpire calls, "Time out!" A swarm of flying creatures approaches from the west. They have webbed feet and hands, and faces like rhinos. They wear black armor and leather buckling as if they're going off to battle. They flap their giant wings and hum a low note as they pass, like chanting monks. My bat vibrates with the sound.
There are so many flying creatures that they blot out the sky. The field goes dark, so that only the pitcher's yellow eyes are visible in the gloom. The creatures suddenly switch their song to a high-pitched whine, almost a scream. I hold my ears until they pass, watch them drift out into space going who knows where.
The sound fades, the sky lightens. "Game on," the umpire says.
Distracted, I take a perfectly good pitch. "Strike two!"
Jenna looks like she might cry.
I awoke from a nap, and Jenna was gone. I called for her, but she didn't come. I scoured the neighborhood, but couldn't find her. I searched under stars turning strange orbits. I searched as purple sea monkeys pecked at the rotting tree tops. I ran down a street as two clumps, miles away, collided in a spectacular spray of dust, though I heard no sound. I reached the school yard and stared across the baseball field.
The home-run fence was cut off in rightfield by the starry abyss, and a bunch of see-through people huddled by the edge. A hundred feet out, a small clump turned slowly, and I watched as one of the see-through people took a running leap towards it, missed by some eighty feet, and tumbled away.
"Pathetic!" I heard someone shout. "Zero points!" It was Jenna's voice. "Player one only has twelve...no, eleven lives left. And she can't win the game unless she reaches the clump!"
I ran up to her. "Jenna! Why would you do such a stupid thing? I looked everywhere for you! I thought you were dead! Why'd you run away?"
She wouldn't look me in the eye. "Go away, Russell! You never want to play with me, so I'll play by myself!"
"Play? What the hell are you doing?"
"Long Jump 1000. If you can reach the clump before your lives run out, you win. I'll show you." She pointed to a see-through girl in the front of the group, a girl with cherry red glasses, whose mouth was open as if she were about to sing.
"You, nerd girl! Get ready to jump!"
I recoiled in horror. "Jenna — No! — you can't do this. These are people."
She shook her head. "No, they're not! They're dolls. Kens and Barbies. I have twice as many as Chrissie now."
I felt sick and didn't know what to do. I stared across the baseball field. Though it was littered with windblown papers, it was mostly still intact.
A see-through person, Mr. Verini, my world studies teacher, stood nearby. He held a piece of chalk, put his finger to his lip, looked like he was about to speak. But I knew he never would.
"Mr. Verini, come here!" I commanded, and he obeyed.
I lifted a small pebble. "Catch this stone." I tossed it to him. He dropped the chalk and caught the pebble.
"Excellent!" I said. Across the field, a hairless cat with huge yellow eyes and long teeth was sniffing about the dumpster, "Hey, creepy!" I called. "Know how to catch a ball?"
The cat bounded over on all fours. "Excuse me?" she said, her voice like snakes hissing.
"Do you know how to catch a ball?"
"I'm a very fast learner. You have to be if you want to survive."
"Good. Go find eight smart friends and bring them here."
"Because we're going to play a game of baseball."
"Yep." I looked at Jenna. "Humans versus Creepies."
The cat hissed, "Why?"
"Because it's about time I played with my sister."
And for the first time in weeks, Jenna smiled.
Two strikes. Two outs. This is it. Now or nothing. Time seems to slow as the pitcher readies herself on the mound, as Jenna leans off first base expectantly. I glance at the Kens and Barbies sitting in my dugout, waiting for someone to instruct them. The Creepies, the Lost, they stare at me, awaiting the pitch.
It comes. It's perfect. I have to swing. There is nothing left in all the universe except this pitch.
Time stops. Synapses connect in my brain. Connections are made in lightning-flash time. Crack. My bat connects with the ball. Time is slowed. The ball compresses, pauses, flies off my bat towards first base.
I feel like I'm burning, like my head is exploding with thought. Jenna is sprinting away from first. Dirt flies in slowed time from her heels. Her face is a twisted expression of glee and terror. The pitcher turns. The ball flies high over the head of the first baseman.
I'm dropping the bat, running for first, watching the ball fly up, up. I feel like my eyes are laser beams, my body encased in high-tech armor. My head is a supercomputer, running this game.
The mound of hands in rightfield is scrambling for the ball, which keeps sailing farther, higher. The pitcher is jumping on the mound, shouting, "Catch it! Catch it!" Even the Kens and Barbies have turned their eyes to watch the ball.
"Fuck you!" I scream to the hand who shredded this world, like I shredded so many of mine. "Fuck you very much!" My voice spreads into the cosmos ahead of the sailing ball.
The ball sails up, over the blob of hands. The blob tries to catch it, leaps higher than any human ever could. But he won't reach it. No one will. The ball flies high over the home run fence, and out into the stars.
"Home run!" Jenna screams. "Home run! Home run! Home run!"
A dozen or a hundred or a thousand feet out, the ball explodes. The sky fills with light as I round second, and the Creepies shield their eyes. The Kens and Barbies rise to their feet. I reach third and the sky's almost too bright to look at. Jenna squints at the light as I scoop her up, hug her, and step on home plate.
"It's so beautiful," she says. "What did you do?"
"We played, Jenna. I think it's because we played."
The light begins to burn away the edges of the field, moving closer every second.
"So what happens now?" she says.
"I guess it's up to him." I point up.
She takes my hand and looks up at me, terrified. "I'm glad you played with me, Russell."
"We make a great team," I say as the light reaches our feet. I only wish Mom were here to see us now.